The first time Susan Biondi stepped foot in Aishel House, the Houston-based organization founded by Rabbi Eliezer and Rochel Lazaroff to service families in need at nearby Texas Medical Center, she was, in her own words, “blown away.”

“I’d known about Aishel House for about three years,” says Biondi, who’d accompanied her son’s sixth grade class on a field trip to make meals for sick patients. “It’s amazing what they offer to the people who come in: not just the food and the shelter, but the warmth and the love.”

Founded by Chabad-Lubavitch at Texas Medical Center – a synagogue and community center that caters to area Jewish families, doctors and students at nearby Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine – the Aishel House coordinates kosher food distributions for Jewish patients and housing for those undergoing long-term treatments and their families.

When delivering meals to the hospital, Biondi was awe struck by the display of delight and joy on the faces of the recipients.

“We walked into a room where someone was laying there all alone recovering from an illness, and she lit up when she saw that her food was coming from the Aishel House,” recalls Biondi. “It wasn’t just the food that made her day, but that somebody out there was thinking of her. It was truly amazing.”

The Lazaroffs launched what would eventually becomes the Aishel House in 1992, not long after moving to the area around the medical center, one of the largest in the United States.

“When we first got to Houston we began taking care of Jewish patients in many different ways,” says Eliezer Lazaroff. “We provided friendship, kosher food, hospital visits, religious support and counseling.”

In 1995, as the need for community assistance grew increasingly evident, the Lazaroffs annexed a two-bedroom apartment where patients recuperating at Texas Medical Center and their families could stay for extended periods of time.

Rochel Lazaroff sent out emails enlisting the help of local volunteers – including high school-aged children, their teachers, parents, even local girl scout troops – to make and deliver ready-to-eat meals to patients at the hospital.

“Aishel House benefitted from Bar and Bat Mitzvah age that wanted to undertake a project that was meaningful,” she says of the 12 and 13-year-olds who inspired what became dubbed as the “Food from Friends” program.

“One day, one of the kids baked cookies for a patient,” continues Lazaroff. “On Friday nights we delivered Shabbat meals. For some of these kids it was their first time cooking so it was also a lesson for them in kosher food. We knew there was a need for the families and that we were able to make dinners. But at that point we didn’t have a unified food and hospitality program.”

Preparing kosher food has become a community affair at the Aishel House.
Preparing kosher food has become a community affair at the Aishel House.

In 2003, Aishel House purchased an adjacent 18-unit apartment building that soon began functioning as both a short- and long-term residence for patients and their families of all backgrounds.

“As a world-class medical center, the hospital attracts patients from all over the world, including Turkey, South America and Europe,” explains the rabbi. “When people have very complicated medical problems they come here for treatments such as valve replacements, transplants, chemo, and it can take a long time before they stabilize. The average stay at Aishel House is over 50 days, but we have guests that stay for much longer.”

While Aishel House apartments boast kitchens where guests can make their own meals, Lazaroff points out that after an emotionally taxing day at the hospital, the last thing patients likely want to do is go food shopping or cook dinner.

“That’s why we’re here,” says Lazaroff, “to show the patients in their times of hardship that someone is thinking about them.”

Biondi recently referred a family to Aishel House that was having difficulty securing a hotel room they could afford while one if its members underwent long-term medical treatment at TMC. Within ten minutes, Rochel Lazaroff made arrangements for their entire stay.

“Rochel is an amazing person,” exclaims Biondi. “The world needs more people like her.”

Many people don’t realize the impact that one human being can have in the world and how little it takes to make a difference, says Rochel Lazaroff. She hopes that Aishel House can serve as a beacon of inspiration to groups outside of Houston looking to assist their community members in need.

“This is part of the whole circle,” she proclaims. “And when we’re in a relationship with other people in the world we are humbled. When you’re doing something like we’re doing at Aishel House you’ve got to do it with your whole heart. These are not charity cases [at the hospital]. These are people fighting a really good fight and we have the important privilege of helping them.”